Syracuse launches free broadband program aimed at narrowing the "digital divide"
The City of Syracuse on Monday launched Surge Link, a three-year pilot program that aims to bring free, high-speed internet to more than 2,500 eligible households in the Near Westside, Brighton and Southwest neighborhoods, some of the city's most economically vulnerable.
Mayor Ben Walsh said digital inequity, the lack of reliable access to the internet, affects a quarter of Syracuse residents; and one-third of its public-school students, which is above the national average. Others at the launch pointed out that this divide disproportionately affects communities of color.
Bill Simmons, the executive director of the Syracuse Housing Authority, says the pandemic was a wake-up call to the digital divide, and how the internet has become necessary infrastructure in all daily life, for everyone from children to seniors.
"With so many residents trying to be proactive about their health and access to doctors, the ability to be able to do that online, like so many other families, it's going to be...great," said Simmons. "The ability for young people to be able to get internet at home, as opposed to going to the library, is huge."
The first two broadband hubs are at the Toomey Abbott Towers and the James Geddes Housing Development, where the launch was held.
Kevin Frank, executive director of the Brady Faith Center, applauds the initiative but says there’s a lot more to be done to fix Syracuse’s longstanding “resource deserts,” those neighborhoods that lack supermarkets, access and investments.
"I think it's really important to realize that there's no 'us and them,' there's just us. And in many ways, we need to be in awe at what people have had to carry in communities like the Near Westside and South Side, and how they’ve carried it," Brady said.
Walsh's administration says Surge Link cost just over $1.8 million to implement and the three-year pilot program is entirely financed with $3.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which may end next year, however. If it does, the city "will use ARPA funds allocated to partially subsidize subscribers for the remainder of the program," according to the mayor's office.
City leaders also say the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Programis being leveraged to subsidize the monthly cost of the service in order to make it free for households.
The city says if the program is successful, a plan to expand it will be ready by the end of 2024.